Fire alarms woke residents of Claremont McKenna College’s Appleby Hall just after 3 a.m. last Saturday. Five fires had been set around campus, prompting an arson investigation by the Claremont Police Department and the Los Angeles County Fire Department, with support from Campus Safety.
One fire was set inside a dryer in the Appleby residence hall laundry room and another inside a trash can on an Appleby second-floor balcony. The others were outside: in a trash can in the breezeway between Bauer North and South, on a chair outside Green Hall and in a tree near a parking lot.
The fires were officially categorized as arson in an email to the CMC student body from Vice President for Student Affairs, Admission and Financial aid Jefferson Huang and Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students Mary Spellman. Huang and Spellman also wrote in the email that “the College will hold responsible anyone who is found to have caused these fires,” which likely caused thousands of dollars of damage.
Appleby resident Olivia Lanaras CM ’17 said she saw both the trash can fire and the fire from the laundry room after she was woken by the alarms.
“The fire alarm went off at 3 a.m.,” Lanaras said. “I tried to wake my roommate up, and she said, ‘Turn out the light, it’s probably a drill.’ But you get that feeling when you sense something’s wrong, and then I saw my RA run past the window, sprinting, and then she started screaming, you know, ‘Get out, get out.’”
Sean Pyne CM ’17, also a resident of Appleby, similarly believed the initial alarm to be part of a drill.
“I think at first, everyone kind of thought it was just a random fire alarm,” Pyne said. “Then I think everyone realized that there was actually a fire, and then I think everyone was freaking out like, ‘Oh my God, is Appleby burning to the ground right now? Are people still in there?’”
The fires were relatively small and were quickly extinguished by Campus Safety and the L.A. County Fire Department. No one was injured, and, according to Pyne, Appleby residents were able to return to their hall within 30 minutes of evacuating.
“We were on scene of the first call literally in one minute,” said Interim Director of Campus Safety Stan Skipworth.
Detective Bureau Lieutenant Mike Ciszek of the Claremont Police Department said that while there was supposedly a thin, white male seen leaving the area during the fires, no single suspect can currently be identified as the arsonist.
“I would just like to stress to all of the community … that if they see something that looks suspicious to please give us a call right away,” Ciszek said. “The fact that we got a call from one of the students early on really made a big difference. We really are looking for students and citizens to be our eyes and ears if they see something that doesn’t look right—to call us immediately.”
“[The fire] was more scary because of the intent,” she said.“The fact is that our room, especially, has been targeted for weird stuff in the past.”
Lanaras said one person broke into their bathroom through a window, and an older man banged on the door incessantly claiming to be a Pitzer student and demanding to be let in. She is hoping steps will be taken to make the campus safer.
“We really want cameras,” Lanaras said. “I don’t know why there aren’t cameras there [around the residence halls], to be honest … there’s been enough stuff that’s gone down that it’s probably necessary. “
Lanaras also said that for safety, students should stop the habit of leaving doors propped open during parties, noting that the Appleby laundry room, where one of the fires occurred, is only accessible with an ID card from the outside or through a lounge door with no lock.
“A lot of the time our lounge doors are open, so that’s how we think they got in without having to use a card,” she said. “My friend saw the room open earlier that night.”
According to Skipworth, the fires led Campus Safety to make adjustments to address these and other security concerns.
“We’ve employed a couple of new strategies to help us make sure that how we’re patrolling their respective campuses … keeps us as best and fully informed on what may be developing, so we can respond to it as soon as possible,” he said.
Dean Spellman and Assistant Vice President for Investigations Marcie Gardner declined to comment on the investigation due to its ongoing nature, but both urged anyone with information about the fires to talk with Gardner, Campus Safety or any member of the Dean of Students Office.